The Mütter Museum presents David Orr’s ‘Perfect Vessels’

Measuring perfection among the imperfect

By creating art exhibitions within the context of science, the Mütter Museum recognizes the link between scientists and artists. Their current exhibition, Perfect Vessels, is David Orr’s photographic study of skulls from the Mütter collection.

Those perfectly imperfect vessels. (Photo courtesy of the Mütter Museum)

The word “vessels” refers to the use of human skulls as bowls in ancient cultures. “Perfect,” refers to symmetry, which the exhibition says is “a cultural signifier of perfection.” These photographs achieve symmetry through manipulation of the print, mirroring one side of the skull but presenting it as the whole.

Orr’s photographs are beautifully created in strong monochrome and presented in tondi upon a black ground. This round format emphasizes the circularity of the skulls. A few biographic words, sometimes names, identify them: an 80-year old man; lobotomized individual; young man who committed suicide.  

What lies beneath

Before art school, I worked as a social worker with a neurodevelopmental pediatrician evaluating infants for medical disabilities and syndromes. During the evaluation, the doctor had a disconcerting habit of muttering, “hypertelorism” or “simian crease.”

In response to this doctor’s question, “Dysmorphic change?” his professional entourage looked at an alarmed parent, assessing whether wide-set eyes or single-creased palms were merely familial traits or something worse. Sometimes, it was no more than baby looking like parent. In worse situations, even subtle changes — easily dismissed as trivial — could mean imposing the most painful information a parent will ever receive: disabling syndrome or early death of their baby. At those times, I was the professional left in the examining room as the family watched their world collapse.

Wandering through the Mütter Museum, I think of these babies while looking at specimens of strange abnormalities. I see the plaster cast of Chang and Eng Bunker joined at the chest, the first to be identified as Siamese twins; the skeleton of the American giant; babies who never made it beyond jars because of severe deformities. Of course, I do not witness the pain these individuals and their families experienced; pain is pushed away by the pursuit of knowledge, time, and glass containers.

In art school, I was taught to see differently. A still life is seen less in terms of discernible objects but as dynamic relationships: light and shadow, near and far, together and separate. Likewise, I learned portraits were dependent not upon the visible, but upon the muscles and bones that lie beneath.

Whose perfection?

Despite their perfect symmetry, there is much wear and tear in Orr’s skulls, and I think of Sam, my son’s friend, who accidentally shot his eye out with a potato gun when he was 12 years old. Morbidly, I imagine Sam’s skull with a beautifully reconstructed platinum socket for a never-again-sighted eye and wonder, if Sam blows out his other eye, is that symmetry closer to perfection?

The artist’s decision to create perfect symmetrical skulls in a museum that screams of distortions is interesting, but perhaps that’s the point. Both medicine and the photographs appeal to an ideal. This creation of a stable reference point from which anything can be judged, in turn, structures a world where definitive answers are possible.

Art too has it ideals, but it also shows a way of experiencing the particular. When I draw an apple, I am drawing that apple at that time in that place, creating a world of ever-changing specifics that undermine absolutes.

It is not surprising that emphasis in education is placed upon science and math over the lesser certainties of the arts. We depend upon medicine for survival, and our culture is often wary of ambiguity. After all, who wants the doctor answering, “I don’t know?”  

Art and ambiguity

But even with exhibitions such as Perfect Vessels demonstrating the links between art and science, art gets pushed aside and depicted as non-essential by comparison to science. And yet, art is one way we can navigate ambiguity and gain a better an understanding of our lives.

I am left alone with the devastated family in the neurodevelopmental examining room. The strange doctor knows their why question can’t be answered with explanations of chromosomes and chemistry; their questions of what will happen can only be answered with time.

In this room, ideals are shadows. Since their baby is not a perfect vessel, they are left only with ambiguity, which our culture has not helped them experience as an alternative to the ideal.

But the family will learn to survive, becoming as artists recreating a world not from value judgments based upon ideals but from their very real, non-conceptualized experience with that baby for whom there is no comparison. 

Our readers respond


of Ithaca, NY on October 03, 2016

Thanks so much for sharing, I really loved reading the article! It's such an interesting perspective. Most striking to me was the anecdote about your son's friend Sam: it really makes you question this fine balance between ideals, destruction, and perfection. I'm curious about the concept of non-conceptualized experience. When you have the concept of an apple in mind and you draw another very specific kind of apple, are you simultaneously creating a space of all the other forms that could have existed from that concept (but never actually come to exist)? I think as much as we're wary of ambiguity, we're equally wary of perfection. I don't many people want complete symmetry: there's something called the "uncanny valley," where people get uncomfortable when humanoid robots look too similar to humans; and near-perfect symmetry in faces is attractive to us, whereas perfect symmetry is strangely aversive. Most people would probably agree that Sam is better off if his eye sockets aren't blown out. We're uncomfortable with this objective perfection, for some intrinsic reason. There doesn't seem to be any agency in making the one choice that's the "correct" one: we must need some sort of variability to survive and feel like we have some sort of purpose.

Science to me is precision (we try to fill up empty spaces with as much certainty as we can, which I think is very different from perfection), and I think it's much more concerned with understanding variability over achieving perfection. To me, science is constructed on variability, except we just try to find ways to operationalize that variability in the most precise ways possible.

In my lab, we study the neural mechanisms that guide "babbling" in songbirds; our lab wouldn't even exist if there were no such thing as variability. I'm also taking a graduate seminar on developmental psychology and robotics, and we're interested in finding bottom-up perceptual and social cues that can be used to construct social robots. We could use a top-down approach and code in a bunch of rules that the robots follow, but no one (not even scientists) find that satisfactory. Most efforts are directed towards machine learning, trying to find some kind of flexible mechanism the robot can use to navigate variability and uncertainty in its own way. The way we construct those mechanisms will be heavily guided by our knowledge of human neural circuitry and the precise wiring diagrams that we've constructed with years and years of research. But is that perfection?

Maybe the difference in a scientific and artistic approach lies in leaving this ambiguous space untouched and allowing it to stand for itself (which is how I see art: much more self-organizing and liberating; letting negative space create an image. I think there's a limit to how much ambiguity we can handle, which is why we need science (the doctor can't just say, "I don't know"). Art is also a science, so there's really no way to create space without some foundation in absolute concepts (e.g., the apple). It seems to be a delicate balance, which is so interesting!

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